Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Contact is just a real good movie to sit down and take in. Just as in Silence of the Lambs, Jodie Foster shines best when playing a role that balances the smart and tough female who also wears her emotions on her sleeve. The story, written by Carl Sagan, is basically well put together in that he skillfully incorporates real science into an admittedly fictional scenario, while at the same time touching on philosophy and adding a powerful dramatic background story. And it was well directed by blockbuster veteran Robert Zemeckis. I couldn't resist adding it to my collection.

I have to say I've never been a fan of Sagan personally. As both a faithful Catholic and a student of science, I have never felt a fundamental conflict of interest between the two disciplines. Sagan always came across to me as having a downright contempt for religious belief as either naively ignorant or actively antagonistic to science. I admit there are some religious people that think this way, but to throw out faith and spirituality altogether along with them is a bit misguided. Although there are probably many scientists who might agree with Sagan, none of them were as publicly vocal about it as he was. Contact was adapted to the screen after Sagan had already passed on, and since I do not know how well it reflected his original novel, I will respectfully leave his name out of the commentary to follow.

In the film, Foster plays an atheist scientist involved in the SETI program when the first signal indicating extra-terrestrial intelligence is detected. A series of discoveries unfold that ultimately reveal designs to build a machine that will allow Earth to contact the aliens, and NASA decides to go ahead with the plans. The contraption is so huge that it takes a Saturn program style launch pad to operate, but it does not require a launch. It's more like a space-time transporter. One of the most striking scenes for me when I first saw it was when the first prototype was sabotaged and came crashing down toward the crowds. It's a very nice melding of CGI and live action that you can view here if you don't mind the spoiler. You get the full impact in wide screen.

A really unique aspect of the story is that it all happens in view of the public instead of some UFO sighting in the back woods. This creates all sorts of interesting political and social reactions in the world, which is a difficult thing to successfully predict. I can't say that it wasn't a bit oversimplified or exaggerated at times. Foster's character is entwined throughout the story with a preacher played by Matt McConaughey who engages her in discussions about faith vs. science. Their differences ultimately put them at odds as they must both respond in the public eye to the new developments and what they mean to the world. At first, it seems like a slap in the face to religious belief. But in the end, our atheist scientist successfully encounters the aliens without any proof to show the world that it actually happened. It comes down to congressional hearings in which she publicly has to admit that she can only point to her "faith" in the experience as the closest thing to proof. This full circle round trip makes for a beautiful close to the story.

There is an attempt by the filmmakers to evoke the sense of anticipation and wonder that was first achieved in Close Encounters, but on this count I feel it fails miserably. During the contact scene, there is some good atmosphere generated while poor Jodie Foster has to maintain her sense of incredulity for what seems like forever. But the whole concept of some all knowing, all good, paternal community of aliens waiting for the Earth to join up was just too much to swallow. It's kind of like replacing belief in God with belief in something almost as similar. Of course, I've never been one to buy into the idea that if a civilization advances far enough they will inevitably rid themselves of evil, anymore than they would rid themselves of goodness or heroic virtue.

I have to say one thing about the Introduction, which is a pan out sequence in space attempting to show how the radio transmissions emanating from Earth travel backward in time as you get farther away. It's a cool idea, but I don't know why the director didn't so much as try to make it accurate. Our nearest star, Alpha Centauri, would be receiving transmissions from 4.3 years ago, if they even had enough power to get that far. The intro has 70's music already playing before the camera reaches Jupiter - which is only 43 minutes away by radio signal. I mean, c'mon guys!

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